The thematics of power and the consequences of privilege Emerald Fennell explored in 2020’s confronting Promising Young Woman are exacerbated in her wicked follow-up, Saltburn, which feels as if The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr. Ripley were invited to participate in an orgy with Bret Easton Ellis and the cast of Euphoria in a summer estate decorated by Sofia Coppola.
Everyone behaves badly, but very rarely do they admit to it, throughout Fennell’s oft-shocking comedic thriller, which would like us to think it’s a queer love story of sorts between the studious Oliver Quick (a perfect Barry Keoghan) and the affable, is-he-unattainable Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, the Australian talent letting his 190+cm frame do most of the work), but gradually reveals itself as something much more tragic and sinister.
At the prestigious University of Oxford, Oliver is attending on a scholarship. He’s studious to the point of being a social outcast, so his chance friendship with college lothario Felix means all the more as he nestles in quickly to Felix’s effortless confidence and social standing with the student body at large.
Felix, who’s never quite as shallow as his initial framing would have us believe, clearly has an affection for the puppy-like Oliver, so it makes sense that for their summer vacation the largely family-less Oliver is invited along to join the Catton clan at the titular estate. It’s from here out that Fennell’s razor-sharp, unpredictable script specifically caters to Keoghan’s chameleon-like ease at enveloping whichever character he needs to in order to survive, and given the vultures that make up Felix’s immediate family, it makes all the more sense for Oliver to do so.
Between his depressive, chain-smoking sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, a real standout), his impossibly cheery father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant, a treat), and the acid-tongued (though she’d play the fool if called on it) matriarch Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, easily slinking her way into the Supporting Actress awards race), Felix is alarmingly functional in comparison. And as much as their manipulative behaviour may confront, Oliver relishes the challenge of seducing his way further into their fold, finding a penchant for the Machiavellian-like behaviour needed to guide the family dynamic in his ultimate favour.
Truly embodying what it is to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Keoghan is devastatingly grand as Oliver, owning every single second of Fennell’s psychosexual satire. He deviously whispers at one point that he’s “A vampire”, and though not literal, Saltburn plays into that mentality as he waits to be invited into a world he doesn’t belong, but easily makes his own. He feeds off the goodwill of the Cattons at times, and off their blood and bathwater at others; I did say he’s not an actual vampire, but it’s not an exaggeration saying at one point Oliver does grace the screen with blood-soaked lips following one of the film’s many, many cornering set-pieces.
And it’s not only the physical action taking place on screen that shocks – all I will say is you may never look at a fresh grave the same way, or listen to Sophie Ellis Bextor’s disco-adjacent 2001 single “Murder on the Dancefloor” in the same manner – it’s that Fennell frames the film in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio that makes all that unfolds that much more voyeuristic for our pain and pleasure. Mirroring Oliver’s own leering look into this debaucherous world that he slyly picks apart from the inside out, such an aspect adds to the film’s artwork-like visuals, which, over time, see their colours fade as Oliver uses his own brush strokes to manipulate such beauty.
A film best left untainted so viewers can truly experience the descent into blackly comedic tragedy for themselves, Saltburn may flirt with narrative familiarity, but it plays out in a manner that many will be unprepared for. And, in true Fennell fashion it’s the ending that will generate the most conversation. Though perhaps less of a controversial exchange than how Promising Young Woman wrapped itself up, Saltburn, nonetheless, undresses itself and indulges in the mentality of having “the last laugh”. It’s sexy. It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s Saltburn.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Saltburn is now screening in Australian theatres.